Consulting Proposals as Confirmation Not Negotiation

There’s a huge misconception about the purpose of proposals for business consultants. Many business and management consultants mistakingly view them as a sales vehicle. If this is you, listen up.

The mistake begins when the consultant receives an inquiry from a prospective client. They immediately send over a stock proposal that explains their consulting services, what they will provide, and how much it will cost.

Their hope is that the prospect will love what they see and either buy right then and there, or call them in to negotiate a final deal.

The other equally misguided approach is to meet with a prospect, have a great discussion, and then, when the prospect asks, “What would you charge to provide this service?,” you respond with, “Well, let me go crunch some numbers based on what you’ve told me, and put together a proposal and send it over.”

Either tactic is normally the kiss of death.

The only way a consulting proposal should ever be used is as confirmation of what you and the prospect have already agreed to verbally or face-to-face.

Here’s your gauge to know if you’re screwing up and using a proposal incorrectly. If your prospect has to learn the specifics of what will be delivered and how much it will cost by seeing it in the written proposal for the first time, you’re doing it wrong.

The right way would be to discuss all of the deliverables with the client first, negotiate your proposal verbally, and arrive at an agreement. Only then should you draft a proposal and send it to them. Proposals are confirmation of what has already been agreed to, not a sales or negotiation vehicle.

The only exception to this rule might be a formal request for proposal (RFP) scenario, where the organization has to follow rigid rules for requesting multiple proposals from multiple vendors, and the only way you could join the running would be to do as they dictate.

Large government contracts are almost always conducted this way. That said, my question to you would be, “Do you want to be just another vendor”?

I wouldn’t tell you to turn down a large contract, but whenever you are hired as a vendor, you’re a commodity and relegated to the ranks of “whoever provided the minimum we needed at the lowest price.”

Such contracts are also the least secure, because the next consultant to come along with a lower price is likely to take that business away, since your greatest value proposition to such clients is just your price. A good proposal has the following characteristics:

  • It is short. Gone are the days of 20- to 30- page proposals. The big boys may still deliver them, but they are proposing immense million dollar engagements to corporations with a team of lawyers who stand at the ready to pour over such massive details. Keep them short (two to four pages) and to the point.
  • It is topic specific. By this I mean drop the numerous pages of boilerplate advertising about who you are as a company, what you offer, testimonials from past clients, and any other sales material. If you use proposals as sales vehicles this makes sense, but you won’t ever do that again. Since proposals are confirmation of a sale already mentally agreed to, don’t bother selling the client in the proposal.
  • It covers expectations. Be sure to include the specifics of who is responsible for what. Don’t be vague here. Doing this helps avoid the contentious debates that can occur down the road when opinions about who was to do what differ.
  • It includes context. When you write a proposal, include the titled sections below that focus on the context of the problem.

    • The Problem. Restate the problem the client is suffering from and its literal impact on their organization (e.g., “Background: Acme Manufacturing is currently experiencing decreased sales costing $500,000”).
    • The Cause. Specifically state the cause behind the problem (e.g., “Cause: It has been determined that this decrease in sales is the result of ineffective hiring practices leading to poorly qualified sales staff, and poor management skills of existing sales managers.”)

    • The Solution and Objectives. Describe the overall approach you will take to correcting this problem and your overall objective in doing so (e.g., “IMX Consulting will work with hiring managers to identify the key traits of effective sales professionals and introduce the ability to measure for those in all new hiring situations. The objective of this proposal is to increase sales by 50 percent in the first year, resulting in a $250,000 increase in sales.”)

    • The Specifics. Under “the solution” I stick to the higher-level overview, not including many specifics. In this section of the proposal, I cover the tiny details. If you are careful to include the Who, How, What, Where, Why, and When, then you are covered.

    Except for some of the minor details, all of these things should have already been discussed and agreed upon before you write the proposal.

About Jay Niblick


  1. Mark Burnett says

    Fully agree. The proposal should only document what was already agreed upon. In some of my previous work, emails were sent to confirm everything that was already discussed in the meeting.

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